The news these days is filled with concern about saving democracy, how it is under siege. President Biden characterized the threat posed by Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat in 2020 as “a knife to the throat of democracy.” Trump, in turn, appeals for support of his groundless accusation of massive voter fraud in terms of “saving democracy.”
It is striking that democracy still has such symbolic power in the American consciousness that both sides in our polarized nation see themselves as defending democracy, and see the power of trumpeting that in their appeals for public support.
It is striking that democracy still has such symbolic power in the American consciousness that both sides in our polarized nation see themselves as defending democracy.
What the two sides mean by democracy, however, is quite distinct. Biden, and most Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans, see democracy in the familiar terms of free, competitive elections in which all citizens may participate, guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press, and the likelihood that competing parties may alternate in power. This is essentially what political scientists call “liberal democracy” because it embodies the basic principles of liberal political theory dating from the 17th century.
Liberal democracy does not enshrine any doctrine or party in power. What it insists on is the free competition of ideas and parties, to be arbitrated by periodic popular votes. It is democracy defined by procedure, not by doctrine.
Trump and his followers advocate a fundamentally distinct idea of democracy. Donald Trump’s inaugural speech in 2017 repeatedly used the phrase, “Only I can fix it.” That continues to be his theme to this day; millions of his supporters affirm it, to this day. This is classic charismatic leadership, where people follow someone because they attribute unique qualities and powers to the leader. For Trump and his followers, an election can only be valid if he wins, because he and his followers embody the true people. Those who vote against him thereby disqualify themselves as true Americans; their votes are therefore considered fraudulent.
We may call this concept of democracy “personalist” or “populist.” Democracy is not procedural, but rather identified with a particular leader and his party. Opponents are by definition anti-democratic, and must be kept from power at all costs. While appearances may dictate continuing to have competitive elections, laws may be passed to limit the capacity of opponents to actually win the elections.
Both these concepts of democracy have long pedigrees. Liberal democracy goes back to John Locke in the 17th century, while populist democracy goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th. Locke’s emphasis was on protection of individual rights, while Rousseau emphasized the absolute sovereignty of the people, defined as those who have only the true interests of the people in mind, and not their private interests. Famously, this allows the “true people” to impose their will on those who persist in seeking their private interest, who could in essence be “forced to be free.”
Thus we currently have a polarization in this country wherein each side sees the other as a fundamental threat to democracy. While the advocates of liberal democracy feel constrained to respect the rights of their opponents, even though they pose a threat to democracy itself, the advocates of populist democracy feel no such constraint.
Students of history will remember that such a polarization led to the death of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. The center-right Zentrum and the center-left Social Democrats left the field open to the left-wing Communists and the right-wing Nazis. The latter won the last free elections, in 1933.
While the United States has a far deeper history of democracy than 1930s Germany, the precedent is nonetheless worrisome. How can we be true to the fundamental principles of liberal democracy without opening the door to its destruction?